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Monthly Archives: July 2009
The truth and set theory: more on Mr. McNamara
Robert S. McNamara struggled with his own humanity in the face of all he had done. His faith in statistics, systems theory, and science was equaled by his seeming allergy to human emotion, in spite of a life lived full of emotion. Whether his sense of duty was a righteous sham or a noble straightjacket cannot be answered now, but we do know that his sense of duty prevented him from acting on his beliefs. In not acting – not speaking out against the war and Johnson’s stubborn pursuit of it – McNamara’s misdeeds became the emblem of his life.
My perspective on McNamara is a luxury of history. In 1984, when I was working for the Mondale campaign as a College Democrat, we looked back on the 1960s with dim and misplaced nostalgia for something we didn’t understand. When we drew up our marches and rallies against the U.S. role in Central America, we wondered what had been lost since 1968.
With this in mind, I wrote my friend, Peter, who was there in 1968. I asked him to read the post and address one question: “[D]o you think I let him off too easily?”
He wrote me the following, which he allowed me to post here without editing:
McNamara remains something of an enigma to me. He was definitely my enemy back in the 1960s when I was going to school in Ann Arbor. I recently relived those days with one of my old friends. I was attending a conference in Dearborn and made a trip to AA on a beautiful spring day, and my buddy (I hadn’t seen him since 1984) drove in from western Michigan. We recalled the bombing of the ROTC building, the bombing of the CIA office hidden somewhere in downtown AA, various demonstrations we took part in, our first and subsequent encounters with teargas, etc., our first trip to DC to take part in an antiwar march, etc. (we didn’t leave out drugs and rock and roll in our tour of memory lane).
You are quite right about McNamara’s capacity for self-reflection and his—you don’t use these terms— almost theological understanding of what Paul Ricoeur would call “fallible man.” And of course this is what makes him so very different from the motherfuckers of recent vintage who got us into unnecessary wars. Not only will they never be described as the “best and the brightest,” but they provide ample evidence of a total incapacity for self-reflection and self-doubt. All this being said, one of the things that “The Fog of War” revealed was that there were definitely limits to McNamara’s willingness or ability to plunge into his psychic depths. I have a sense that he got near the heart of the matter, but perhaps because of what psychoanalysts call (or at least used to call) resistance, never quite managed to truly come to terms with the reasons for and consequences of his actions.
Errol Morris’s reflections came out in the New York Times yesterday, “McNamara in Context.” Morris points out that as McNamara saw it, his job was to keep us out of nuclear war, which he succeeded in doing even as he failed so spectacularly in other important ways. So much of his life’s work, including at the World Bank, created unintended consequences that were not good at all. Robert S. McNamara was one singularly influential person, a Robert Moses of death and destruction, who had it in his power to do so many things at the flick of a finger.
Like my friend Peter, Morris notes that McNamara never fully accounted for his individual role in the Vietnam War and the unnecessary death it caused, noting that he always used the first person plural when speaking of it. “We were wrong.” For Morris this is part of a greater conundrum: “… how do you say you’re sorry for history?” That kind of accountability is bigger than the individual who, if responsible for some large part of the problem, was surely not alone in it. McNamara was in over his head. He had no mind for the ideas and emotions that would have addressed the situation he was in.
We see now how Dick Cheney is living with his failures. It’s not likely his obituary will state that in his later years “he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.”
That image, by Tim Weiner in the New York Times obituary of McNamara, recalled for me another fallen genius of the same era: John Nash and his haunting of Princeton in his illness, prior to his resurfacing and recognition with the Nobel Prize in Economics. Both men were gripped by insanity at the height of their powers, only McNamara’s was an historical psychosis that had sanction and authority, while Nash’s was a bitterly lonely, neurological defect.
What is the line between the righteous pursuit of the good, however one conceives it, and real evil? Between clarity of vision and madness? Or perhaps more aptly stated: Who draws that line? The righteous believe they know, and that it’s a simple issue. But it’s not. Maybe there is no line at all, or maybe it gets dim or disappears from time to time. An unwelcome thought indeed, but in math, the empty set is always a subset of any set. ∀A: ∅ ⊆ A So it is with life.
This is not the same as saying there is no good or evil – for there is – only that in some situations truth and rocket science place us at a disadvantage, in a fog of righteousness and knowledge. McNamara was an outlier in the same population of which we are all members, and when we really look at outliers, we simply see ourselves, or at least parts of ourselves, magnified.
The mathematical notation ∀A: ∅ ⊆ A means that “for all sets A, the empty set (∅) is a subset of A.”
Robert Moses was the most powerful figure shaping the urban geography of the New York City metropolitan area. From the 1920s to the 1970s, he created park systems, highways, bridges, tunnels, and public housing that, taken together, are fundamental elements of any picture of 20th and 21st century New York. While few dispute the benefits of the parks, beaches, and swimming pools Moses created, his highways destroyed neighborhoods and isolated populations from each other. Along with the system of public housing he created, Moses is partly responsible for the patterns of racial segregation in New York, and according to Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Knopf), this was intentional. By the 1960s, Moses’s star began to wane, and he lost several public battles over new projects. One of Moses’s most influential critics was Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered a classic urban geography and community theory. Jacobs led the fight against Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was never built. Like McNamara, Moses was an appointed official.
For six months in 2004, I lived on the Red Hook side of “the trench,” a stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (a Moses project) that, along with the Gowanus Expressway (Moses) and Battery Tunnel (Moses), cuts off Red Hook from nearby Carroll Gardens. Red Hook’s public housing development (Moses, again) is one of the largest in New York, and its residents are largely non-white. Carroll Gardens is an old Italian neighborhood that has retained its character, though they had to fight make sure the BQE didn’t demolish their church. In the last few years, Red Hook is undergoing new change, as people from all over the city flock to the giant swimming pool in the park there (Moses), along with one of the newest, and largest IKEA stores (not Moses) in the metropolitan area. Another major (decidedly un-Moses) attraction to Red Hook today are the tacos, whose vendors recently won a touchy battle with the city in order to keep plying their delights for summer soccer fans. It was a struggle Jane Jacobs might have appreciated, as chronicled in part in the Brooklyn Paper.
I have not read Gladwell’s book, Outliers. I’ve read two of his other books and enjoyed them. In my own work as a social scientist, I’ve spent the last 20 years looking at the differences between outliers the rest of us. Not a fan of essentialisms, yet without denying the possibility of essential differences among some people, I tend to view difference as a matter of degrees and context. (see The truth and us).
Filed under death, failure, life, set theory, war
The truth and Mr. McNamara
“Every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war …” Robert S. McNamara, 1962
Few people with the power to make change have placed so much faith in science as a force for public good. Few have wreaked so much havoc and destroyed so many lives with their belief in science. Many fewer still are those who have tried to grapple publicly with the damage they did.
These were thoughts that occurred to me as I read the obituaries of Robert S. McNamara yesterday morning. It brought me back to Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, which I recently spent three days watching, over and over, for a different project.
In Morris’s film, McNamara narrates his life around 11 “principles” that he learned from his involvement with war, both the Second World War and Vietnam. The first is “empathize with your enemy,” and this is the vantage from which I prefer to think about McNamara himself. Rhetorically speaking, this makes him my enemy, which I know he is not, but like any enemy he is the object of my perplexed and sometimes angry thoughts, a person I likely would have “opposed” had I been of an age to do so.
To the extent that McNamara is an object of anyone’s judgment, however, empathy is the perhaps the best way one might understand how a person as remarkable as McNamara could also be, as David Halberstam put it, “a fool.” Yet to remember McNamara only in anger or glib, anti-intellectual sniping at the fact that brilliance is no guarantee against foolishness gains nothing for the world. Most brilliant fools will never, in the manner of Mr. McNamara, admit and more importantly explore their mistakes for the good of the public.
McNamara’s reckoning with his own illusions of scientific truth led him to conclude, among other things, that “rationality will not save us,” that “belief and seeing are often both wrong,” and that one should “be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.” These are his lessons from war, but they would serve us well in ordinary life, too.
From the mid-1990s forward, McNamara became immersed in debating the issues around nuclear war, as well as Vietnam, and the documentary he made with Errol Morris was released right about the time the Bush administration began the invasion of Iraq in 2003. McNamara’s ultimate conclusion from a life of war and science was this:
“What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”
In his dreams and goals and desires, in his patriotism and sense of duty, McNamara was no different than most people. His own peculiar acumen, however, put him in an extraordinary position to affect the lives of others. The hubris of his belief in science was perhaps no more or less than Richard Dawkins’s own arrogance, but circumstance and ambition have placed Dawkins in a relatively benign position that mainly involves preaching to his own choir of fellow travelers.
We might serve Mr. McNamara, and ourselves, best – whether from the view that he was an inhuman monster or the more reflective position that he seemed to wish we would have – by listening to the things he had to say during the last 15 years of his life, from the time of his autobiography, In Retrospect (1995), forward.
Late or not – 27 years elapsed between the end of McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense and his autobiography – McNamara at least tried to help the world understand what he did, without making excuses for himself or (for the most part) fudging the facts in a self-serving way.
One could only wish that other powerful true believers would do the same, but the likelihood is that Alan Greenspan, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld won’t go where Mr. McNamara finally chose to go.
I was not yet born when Robert McNamara assumed the post of Secretary of Defense. My first memories of television, however, are of war reporting. I recall a picture of an empty field, with the rat-a-tatt-tatt of machine guns firing in the distance and the gravelly voice of a war correspondent trying to explain what we weren’t seeing.
The first time I went to Washington DC was in 1990 or 1991, quite possibly for the Washington Mall protest against the Persian Gulf War, part 1 (Desert Storm), though I don’t recall. There was a wedding I went to around that time, which might have been the first trip to DC.
What I do remember is this: As we drove from Michigan to Washington, we listened to the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man’s Zoo. “The Long Parade,” a song about watching people pass along the Vietnam Memorial, stuck in my head. By the time I reached the end of my own walk along the wall, I was in tears, as much for the tragedy spelled out in the 50,000+ names on the wall as for the one name I knew was not there.
My own father served in the US Army from 1962 to 1967. He wasn’t sent to Vietnam, though he trained soldiers who went there from the place of my birth, Fort Hood, Texas. Later, he was sent to West Germany where, for a couple of years, he stood with the first line of defense in the event of Soviet invasion.
Notes and Credits
These are the obituaries I read in preparation for this posting: Thomas Lippman in the Washington Post, Tim Weiner in the New York Times, and Fred Kaplan in Slate.com.
The photograph at the head of this post is of a wall that I helped to build in Ann Arbor at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, the First Persian Gulf War, in 1991. The idea for this piece of public art was Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s. At the time, Jeff and I were both graduate students in political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A group of us built the wall and attached to it all of the things that get destroyed in war. It was located on the central lawn of the Ann Arbor campus, the “Diag” as we called it, for the the diagonal pathways that cross the lawn to connect the buildings.
The wall stayed up for only a few days, being torn down by ROTC members on the one night that people didn’t camp out there to protect it – at the time, it was terrifically cold, in the single digits every night.
The university, however, didn’t clean it up, and it remained for another few weeks. As a pile of rubble it actually accomplished its goal even more effectively. During this time, no one crossed the Diag without stopping to talk about the war.
Richard Dawkins is among the best and brightest evolutionary scientists of his generation. I’ve read some of his books and have enjoyed them – The Selfish Gene, The Ancestor’s Tale – but I have found his unoriginal assessments of religion and the stupidity of people who choose to believe in God (even if they also believe in evolution) to be, at the most generous, tiresome. For an example of hollow, rude intellectual badgering, see his video on Google. It’s like a supernerd bully picking on crippled jock bullies and, frankly, I found the original much more entertaining.
The truth and Twitter, part 2: Truth Default Swaps
The truth will not be verified.
On January 28, 2009, a group of journalists and media professionals gathered in New York to talk about how the new social media were changing the field. The conversation was abuzz with Twitter, which was creating fascinating new possibilities for breaking and sourcing stories. Yet the same technology responsible for social media was killing off the newspapers by destroying their revenue base, and the rot was moving up the media’s trunk to broadcast and cable news. No journalist’s job was safe now. The issue, said Jay Rosen, one of the panelists, was that no one knew how we were going to pay for “verified truth.”
This month, the Ann Arbor News will complete its transformation into “AnnArbor.com,” a Web-based news organization and community platform that brings together traditional journalism, digital media, and freelance bloggers. The paper itself will be printed twice a week, on Sundays and Thursdays. This is a first in the country for a market its size.
How AnnArbor.com intends to verify truth is not clear, but their constituents appear to have other concerns: as of noon on June 27, 2009, the site’s “feedback forum” showed that “print the newspaper” had received 209 votes (more than any other category), while “ensure that all paid content is reviewed for accuracy” came in fifth at 80, and “investigate/analyze local issues” came in much further down the line at 21.
Perhaps some people prefer to go about verifying their own truth, on their own time, rather than trusting an institution to do so. Social media is, after all, a DIY culture. People who care most of about the accuracy of what they believe have always looked for news in multiple places: papers, on-line, television, etc. Some even read books (paper and Kindle).
At the 140 Characters Conference on June 16 and 17, Moeed Ahmad of Al-Jazeera gave a short presentation on how they used Twitter during the Gaza War of late 2008. He discussed how they are working on a method to verify Tweets, by creating a table format for the feeds, including a column for each entry stating whether or not it was “verified.” In the mayehm of the Iran uprising, the major news organizations in the US have started posting pieces from YouTube and reader-contributers, noting that the organization isn’t responsible for the content. It’s the only compelling content that can be found; if you don’t post it, your competitor will.
What if reading the news became like swimming on a beach with no lifeguard? I don’t think this is what will happen, but just consider the possibility. Think about truth as a risk proposition: what I believe should inform what I do, and therefore what I do is only as good as what I know. Bad info = bad action. This is not new – people always have worked very hard to create ways to mitigate the risk of believing things.
To deal with this risk, we create truth: value-based, self-interested calculations about events that make sense to people and mitigate the dangers of belief and action. Some of us construct that “sense” with a lot of external research (fact checking, asking friends, etc.). Others rely on their internal “sense” of “The Truth” (moral codes, principle, etc.). Still others mix these processes or switch from one to the other when it’s convenient.
Twitter doesn’t change the way we go about trying to verify truth in everyday life, nor will it stop us from needing to do so. Rather, Twitter speeds up the capture and dissemination of information, magnifying both the potential gains and risks of believing something we read.
In a hyper-competitive world of individually-based incentives, motives, and pay-offs, Twitter allows people to become more risky. Social media allow us to believe that we have dispersed the risk of belief through crowd sourcing, and in turn, we’re less worried about acting on the wrong information than not acting on the latest information. Crowd sourcing creates something like “truth default swaps,” in which risk is carved up and transferred to so many people that it seems to disappear.
This works for a while, probably most of the time, but mistakes happen. To wit: the New York Daily News appears to have reported Farrah Fawcett’s death about a half hour before it actually happened, though it appears their reporting was accurate, if out of time. Fortunately, the Daily News‘ slip in time did not involve the firing (alleged or real) of nuclear weapons.
On October 28, 2008, Blythe Masters, one of the young turks at J. P. Morgan who was involved in creating the mechanisms and structures of credit default swaps in the 1990s, addressed the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s annual meeting. She emphasized that “it is important to distinguish between tools and their users. We need to remember that innovation has created tools for managing risk.” Masters’ point was that people in the industry behaved as if they had eliminated risk, instead of recognizing that risk never truly went away.
The issue for journalists and citizens alike in the age of social media is similar. In a world where information is flowing much more quickly than anyone’s ability to verify it, will we use the new technology to manage the risk of belief or ignore it?
Either way: The truth will be derived.
Notes and Credits
This is the second of three posts on Twitter. In the third and final installment, truthandrocketscience will get its own twitter account. Also, I am a big fan of lifeguardless beaches.
The newspaper pictured at the top of the posting was generated with the Fodey.com newpaper generator, which I find especially useful when mixing up a new batch of truth.
The panel on January 28 was hosted by MediaBistro, a professional service organization for journalists. The panel was called “Journalists and Social Media: Sources, Skills, and the Writer,” and it featured Jay Rosen of NYU and his PressThink blog, Shirley Brady of BusinessWeek.com, Andy Carvin of NPR, and Rachel Sklar of The Daily Beast and other media endeavors.
Apart from the 300 or so people who have “voted” on the AnnArbor.com site, there are approximately 99,700 other Ann Arborites who have not yet registered their preferences (this grants that each of the votes is a unique individual, which is most likely not the case). Perhaps they are reading the Detroit Free Press, on paper. Or freep.com.
Further: One might interpret the general interest in “print[ing] the newspaper” at the top of the feedback poll as a desire for all that old fashioned newspapers represented, which would automatically include “verified truth” and local investigative reporting. But one would have to ask and explore more deeply to figure it all out.
My interest in the Ann Arbor News is partly personal. I lived in Ann Arbor from 1988 to 1996, during which time I was a graduate student in political science. Besides reading the News, I once appeared in the paper, in a photograph of Gulf War protestors in December of 1991. I saved the paper that day, but somewhere along the way in moves around the upper Midwest and finally to New York, I lost it. But every Christmas, when I unwrap the creche to put beneath my tree, I look at the the shreds of a 20-year old Ann Arbor News page and remember my days there.
The story of Blythe Masters and the group at J.P. Morgan who created the credit derivatives that figured so prominently in the financial crash of 2007-08 has been documented (and verified) by Gillian Tett of the FInancial Times, in her book, Fool’s Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe (Free Press, 2009). Tett quotes Masters’ SIFMA address on p. 250. It’s a gripping book that also has the best explanation of all the different complex securities that were part of the story: credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, asset-backed securities, etc. Tett was interviewed about the book by Terry Gross for Fresh Air.
Filed under credit default swaps, ideas, journalism, media, risk, truth